A Collection That's Otto This World

Jim and Keven Withers have one of the finest collections of big engines you’ll ever find


A one-of-a-kind 1894 50 HP Otto owned by Jim and Keven. The two adult men partially hidden in the background give perspective to the 78-inch flywheels.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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Jim Withers, of Osakis, Minn., has only 50 gasoline engines - "only" compared to the others he's had during his 73 years. "I've owned about 1,000 engines over the years," he says, "but I've always traded the smaller ones for bigger engines."

And what a group of 50 engines Jim and his 43-year-old son, Keven, have in their collection: rare and unusual ones like a 150 HP Snow air-injection diesel, serial number 182; a 125 HP De La Vergne oil engine; and a 200 HP twin-cylinder Miller. Jim believes it is the largest collection of big engines in the country.

Auction fever

About 1964, the year Keven was born, Jim attended an auction. "I was surprised to see the gas engines didn't sell real high, about $15 each, and some uprights like Fuller & Johnsons, Monitors and a couple of others for about $40," he recalls. "They sold a rare upright Sandow 2-cycle engine with a hopper for $140. That astounded me, so I started collecting engines." His first engines were an early John Deere and a 2-cycle Fairmont engine, neither of which was very costly or very precious, Jim says. "After that I acquired about 50 engines quite fast, for hardly any money," he says. "They were very common on the farms and you could buy them for $3, $4, $5 each. They weren't all in good shape and there was a variety of them, John Deere, Fairbanks-Morse, Economy, McCormick-Deering among others."

After that, Jim decided to collect big engines. He published a list of small engines and asked to trade for 10 HP engines or larger. Next, he advertised for those with 6-foot flywheels or bigger, and then those with 8-spoke flywheels. "They were harder to find," Jim says. "We have four big Ottos with 8-spoke flywheels, so they're precious to us. I went to big engines because at a show you can't keep (small engines) all running. They miss a beat and stop. But the big engines maintain their momentum and keep going."

Keven collects alongside, saying he was born into it: "I grew up with the engines. I rebelled against it for a few years when I was about 18 - I don't know why - but then got real interested again, and started purchasing engines with my dad. I've known nothing else but being around the engines."

His favorite engine is probably the 60 HP Otto, he says, because it's an Otto with an early design that was acquired from a good friend, Harold Ottaway, for $10,000. "That was a lot of money at the time," Keven says. "But we didn't have to do much to the engine other than make governor flyballs and a few other things, but we didn't have trouble doing it. We copied the fly balls off another engine, and our Otto turned out real good."

It had been used on a large family farm and donated to an Emporia, Kan., park where Harold acquired it. The Otto, with a 14-3/4-by-24-inch bore and stroke, serial no. 3955, was built in 1893 and has 8-spoke flywheels 78 inches in diameter.

Unique collection

Jim and Keven are proud of their unique collection of engines. They probably like the Ottos best, Jim says. "We've got about a dozen of them running and some more we're fixing," he says. Because Jim was a machinist with a workshop, he was able to do a lot on troubled engines to make them work again. "I lived my whole life as a machinist, and never had enough money, but always had enough to buy another engine," Jim says. "I'm satisfied it was the right choice. I have $1 million worth of engines but not $500 in my pocket. But now I'm disabled, so Keven is in charge."

Jim and Keven's collection includes one-of-a-kinds, like the 125 HP De La Vergne, (previously in Farm Collector, November 1999) along with a baby 20 HP De La Vergne, serial no. 3691, with an 11-1/2-by-17-inch bore and stroke; the 1893 60 HP Otto and 1894 50 HP Otto, with 13-inch-by-22-inch bore and stroke, serial no. 5708, and an 8-spoke flywheel of 78 inches diameter. Both of these are the only one of their kind and size. The Withers also own an 1894 Otto of 13-1/2 HP, serial no. 4044, with a 6-3/4-by-15-inch bore and stroke, built by Schleicher, Schumm & Co., which was used in a mine near Durango, Colo. "It's quite unique to most of the other Otto engines," Keven says, "with an auxiliary exhaust and different governor and other features not found on most Otto engines."

There's also a 10 HP Otto combined with a cable winch from Montana, serial no. 12380, with a 5-3/4-by-12-1/2-inch bore and stroke. "It would have been used in coal or gold mining, and it's the only Otto we know of with a factory winch on it," Keven says. An 1895 5 HP Otto pumping engine, with a combined pumping unit used for a small waterworks, or a railroad water tank, is the only pumping engine they know of. Its serial no. is 6890 and its bore and stroke is 4-3/4-by-10 inches. There's also an 1893 1-7/9 HP inverted Otto with hot tube ignition, serial no. 3773, built by Schleicher, Schumm & Co.

A 60 HP Buffalo tandem gas engine built by Alberger Gas Engine Co. is a one-of-a-kind, serial no. 77, bore and stroke 12-inches-by-13 inches. Their 125 HP Alberger is one of only two Albergers known. "The other Alberger, of about 75 HP, is located at the Coolspring (Pa.) Power Museum (Pa.)," Keven says.

Other rare engines include a 1910 25 HP Otto, serial no. 13820, bore and stroke 9-inches-by-18 inches, of which only six or so are known. "We don't want to get rid of it, but if at some point we find something that we want more, we might sacrifice selling that one," Jim says. "It's about 100 years old, and all the engines are getting that way."

The Otto engines captivated Jim early in his collecting days because they are 4-cycle. Since Otto is credited with inventing the 4-cycle gasoline engine, they are highly favored by collectors.

The Kansas City Hay Press "Lightning" engine is another rarity, with only about eight known to exist. "It was an unusual thing," Jim says. "It had a three-wheel wagon, and we found only a few parts. There was no cylinder though the pistons were there. We built a governor and a cylinder with a squire water jacket just like the original and lots of small parts. We also made an igniter. It was difficult but worked out well. It was a precious engine, but I had to sell it because I got way behind on my taxes and sold four rare engines I hadn't wanted to."

The 100 HP Charter engine was one of the more difficult ones for them to acquire. "We pretty much had to beg a guy in Texas to look at it, because he'd been told it wasn't a very big engine, so he was convinced it was a modern one," Keven says. When he finally looked at it, he saw the base of the engine sat on the floor of a dragline, so the flywheels hung down below the floor, which made the flywheels look smaller than they actually were, 7 feet 4 inches in diameter with eight spokes, which means it's in the top 10 of big single-cylinder, two flywheel engines. "If we had to do it over we would have gotten on a plane and flown to look at it ourselves," says Keven. "It took quite a few years to talk the owner out of it so we could buy it." The bore and stroke is 17-by-24 inches with serial no. 6161 and it has 88-inch, 8-spoke flywheels.

The big 1910 20 HP Klein Model 4 was their cheapest big-engine purchase, Jim says, costing only $90. "We had to go to northwest Virginia to get it, which was a big chore," he recalls. "It was in the oil field and had 6-foot-6-inch flywheels." The Klein's serial no. is 1000 and it has a bore and stroke of 10-by-18 inches. "It was running when we got it so we didn't have to do too much to it," Jim says. "We showed it a couple of times at the Dalton, Minn., show before we moved it to Rollag, Minn., permanently (home of the annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion). The Rollag show furnished a building and has accommodated us real well." Most of Jim and Keven's engines are at Rollag, where they've been shown since 1967.

The 65 HP Blaisdell is one of a pair that came from an oil field in western Pennsylvania. That engine was stripped down a bit when they found it. "Another friend wanted a Blaisdell, so he got the engines out of the building, and we reimbursed him for the cost of the engines and his moving expenses," Keven says. "Then we got his engine free for doing the work."

One of the most recent engines Jim and Keven have added to their collection is an 1893 60 HP New Era hit-and-miss engine with a bore and stoke of 16-by-24 inches. "It's rather rare," Keven says, "with only 12-15 in existence. This happens to be the biggest one and it powered a three-story factory. A friend bought it and, after a lot of hassle, was finally able to get the engine out of the factory. Two years later the factory burned down. That engine is actually talked about in early testimonials in a New Era catalog."

Their 40 HP De La Vergne Model DH is probably one of only two known in that size. Its serial no. is 495, and it has 12-1/2-by-21-inch bore and stroke as well as 72-inch diameter flywheels. Their 1912 50 HP Otto with a throttling volume governor is one of only two engines known to exist. The other one is a 175 HP and was put in running order at Coolspring last year.

Odd places

One of the oddest places they've found an engine was in the Missouri River near Mandan, N.D. "My brother heard about the engine and described it to us. All it had was the base, cylinder and valve cage," says Keven.

It had been discovered years earlier when a boater kept hitting something when he came to the dock. "He wanted to know what it was," Keven says, "so he pulled it out." The Withers didn't get to see it for about a year, but when they did, they realized it was a rare 40 HP Callahan with a 12-3/4-by-24-inch bore and stroke, circa 1906.

"It's in another shop in Iowa right now, and they are making patterns for the flywheels," Keven says. "The biggest hurdle will be making the flywheels, but someday it will become a reality."

Keven adds that it wasn't unusual for an engine to be tossed into a river once it had outlived its use. "The owner probably went to a more modern engine, and at the time, it probably wasn't worth much for scrap, so it was easier to bust it up and push it off the dock," he says. "The engine was most likely used to pull barges from the river to the dock. A lot of engines on rivers ended up as riprap and things like that. That was just something common that happened. There are a lot of engines and tractors yet to be discovered. Some are known, but it's getting more difficult to remove them because there's quite a bit of bureaucracy. You have to get permission to do it."

Odd reactions

Keven says one of the funniest things is the reaction of some older people at the shows. "They'll be looking at one of the 60 HP engines and say they had an engine that big in the old days when they lived on the farm," he says. "In reality, they probably had a 6 HP or 8 HP engine, but they were probably only four or five years old, so to them, the engine looked that big. But a full-grown person talking about having that engine on the farm, for the most part that's just how they remember it, but they didn't really."

Keven says the most exciting day with engines was when he and his dad went out and saw the pair of 600 HP Snow engines in their original location in Pennsylvania. They helped get them back and set up at Rollag. "When they started them up, the floors literally shook beneath our feet," he says. "Dad and I just looked at each other and smiled. Afterward, we agreed if there was ever a way we could get an engine to Rollag we would do it."

That dream came true in 1993. "One of our most memorable moments was starting the 600 HP Snow engine at Rollag for the first time," says Keven. "It started on the first try. It was quite a feeling."

During the last 20 years they have tried to buy several engines but haven't been too successful. "A lot of it has to do with the geography of where the engine is, and it's hard to compete with other people who have a considerable amount of money," Keven says. "There are a few engines we have been watching and have been dealing on, but whether we'll be successful or not, I don't know. But as far as adding new engines, it comes down to what the engines are selling for."

Though it's not really a regret, Jim says he wishes they hadn't restored so many engines. "We restored too many of the engines over the years," Jim says. "Nowadays they want as much original stuff as there is. We cleaned up a lot of the engines that we shouldn't have, but that's what they did then."

He adds they don't over-finish engines with cadmium nuts or chrome exhaust or anything like that. "I hate that stuff," he says. "I'm proud that most of our engines have the original-type accessories on them. We also have fixed them with original-type oilers, even though many of the engines, like the Ottos, had unique oilers, which are not so easy to find."

Jim says he's proud of all his engines, and he favors whichever one he happens to be standing near. "I've enjoyed my life and my life has been engines mostly," he says, "and I'm proud of it."

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; bvossler@juno.com